Back in the early ’70s, when Chad Goller-Sojourner was an infant in an over-crowded foster home in Ohio, the first couple that considered adopting him passed him up. The second couple that came to meet him opted not to give him a home either. Their reasons? The couples, both of whom were Black, thought that, well, he was just a little too dark skinned.
The third couple that looked into adopting him, Goller-Sojourner says, had no problem with his skin tone. They had already adopted a Samoan girl and a bi-racial boy, so this 13-month-old dark-skinned boy? Not a problem. But, from the viewpoint of a Black social worker working on the adoption, there was one tiny issue: Couple Number Three was white. “And,” Goller-Sojourner says, “they told her, ‘Well, thank you for your opinion.’”
Then the white couple, who were living near Tacoma, did what the two other Black couples wouldn’t: they adopted him, releasing him from the foster care system and ushering him into a life of multiple identities.
Shortly after the adoption, Goller-Sojourner’s parents moved to Nigeria, where they lived until he was almost five. Surrounded by so many other dark-skinned people, he says it wasn’t until his return to a predominantly white area of Tacoma that he began to understand that he was different. “I didn’t dream in Black for a long time,” he says. “I dreamed in white.”
And while he says he knew he had nappy hair and that he had to put on more lotion than white kids, he understands now that he was socialized as a white child. “I had to learn to be Black,” says Goller-Sojourner.
Such stories, of Black children being chosen by white parents, will be the focus of the Oct. 11 panel, “Transracial Adoption of Black Children.” Co-sponsored by the Central District Forum on Arts and Ideas and the Ethnic Cultural Center/Theater, the forum will bring together Black adults adopted by white parents and white parents who crossed color lines to choose children, along with those working in the field of adoption. Together, they plan to discuss the complexities – cultural, moral, logistical – inherent in cross-racial adoption.
For Penny Nelson, the issue of skin color came into play when she and her husband sought out their second child. Having already adopted a Korean girl in 1965, Nelson says that they were drawn to billboards placed around Seattle by an agency called Medina Baby Home, prompting would-be parents to consider minority adoption. When they met the Medina caseworker in 1968, Nelson says she posed a question to them: “What color are you comfortable with?”
Nelson says that was an issue they had never considered. “We just sat there looking at her dumfounded,” remembers Nelson, “and she said, ‘I want to know how dark you’re comfortable with.’” The caseworker, herself Black, extended an arm, to use a color guide. “So she said, ‘Well, I’m sort of medium,’ and we said, ‘Oh, that sounds fine,’ remembers Nelson. “I mean, talk about naïve. We were just thrown by the question.”
In the end, the Nelsons chose a child based not on skin tone, but simply on the desire to adopt. They soon found themselves with a new daughter, two months old, whose birth parents were Black and Native American.
Nelson says she can understand how her cultural naiveté at the time might strike some as proof that transracial adoption is an unfortunate experience for the child, but sees the issue as having far too many layers to write off so quickly. “It’s easy to say that [transracial adoption] shouldn’t happen,” she says. “But you’re not out there adopting one of those kids who needs a home.”
Billy Hancock, a recruitment specialist for Amara Parenting & Adoption Services, says that while every adopted child will struggle with identity, kids adopted by parents of a different race will confront more. (Four years ago, Medina Baby Home joined with another organization and changed its name to Amara.) A Caucasian family is likely to be knowledgeable about racism in general, Hancock says, but may not be aware of its subtleties. “It’s going to be a real eye opener,” he says for some entering into such adoptions.
At Amara, a nonprofit organization, Hancock says he helps to connect children in foster homes with potential parents. Over 12,000 children are in the state’s foster-care system, he estimates. In King County, where Black children account for eight percent of the population, they represent nearly 50 percent of children still in the system after four years without placement.
While he says that his organization does what it can to foster adoptions within races, he admits it’s not always possible. To help parents who might reach across racial lines for children, his organization sponsors discussions examining potential hurdles. “Because we do live in a society where race does matter,” Hancock says.
But even while race matters, he says that race should not be a barrier to adoption. More important, he suggests, is to assess would-be parents’ cultural awareness and sensitivity. “To only look at the skin color,” he says, “I don’t think it would be fair.”
And even while Goller-Sojourner doesn’t deny transracial adoption’s difficulties — “The person who called me a nigger looked like my mother,” he recalls — he says that he has no beef with his white parents, because he never wanted for love, which he doesn’t think would have happened in the foster-care system. “It could have happened in a Chinese family,” he says, “but I was in a white family.”